Conservation service helps buy high tunnel garden enclosures

Posted: Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tom Jahns, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has gardened in Alaska for 20 years, and usually considers greenhouses the way to go for Alaska food growers. But the Alaska branch of the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service offers a cost share program for plastic covered frames that heat up gardens.

The frames, called high tunnels, are un-powered frames covered in plastic sheeting that amplifies sun rays and adds heat to home gardens or small farms. Kenai Natural Resource Conservation Service Programming Coordinator Meg Mueller's office offers a cost-sharing program to help farmers install the un-powered greenhouses.

Mueller said that the devices extend the growing season by warming the air and ground around the crops. The extra heat lets farmers grow warm weather crops like sweet corn, tomatoes and raspberries with greater success in a cooler environment like the Peninsula.

"It's like a green house, without the electricity," said USDA Alaska state agronomist Helen Denniston. "It's just a frame."

The program, part of Alaska's $8.1 million Environmental Quality Incentive Program, reimburses farmers who build the enclosures. To qualify, the program manager said that a resident must grow more than $1,000 worth of food or fiber for sale, personal use or "to give away."

Established farmers will receive $3 back for each square foot of land their high tunnel covers up to approximately 2,100 square feet, or 5 percent of an acre. Beginners with less than 10 years experience working the land, Alaska Natives and households with a median income under $28,877 will receive $4 a square foot.

Mueller said that one tunnel can cover the full square footage, or be spread out into multiple enclosures. Whatever the size, farmers cannot receive assistance if their gardens are on wetlands or habitats at risk of erosion.

Denniston said that the majority of the cost comes from shipping the frames to the state. The agronomist didn't know how the frames would fair because this is the first year in a pilot program for the high tunnels. In the Lower 48, the plastic cover lasts for about four years before heat leaves it too brittle to cover the frame.

Without electric heaters or computers to control the temperature inside, owners of a high tunnel manipulate the heat by opening doors and rolling up the plastic on the sides. Denniston said that such adjustments wear the plastic out.

Opening the structure leaves the garden open to hungry moose as well, Jahns said.

"That's the rumor," he said.

Jahns, coordinator of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Conservation Extension Service, said that he bought extra support beams for his $5,000 high tunnel to bolster the structure for the Alaskan winter. Taking down the structure during the seasonal chill will wear the crop out as well.

He's careful not to compost animal by products, and ruled out fish-based fertilizers because of neighboring bears.

University of Washington vegetable pathology professor Debra Inglis said that grizzlies and ungulates aren't the only concerns for high tunnel users. The plastic cover and added heat reduce the amount of water on leaves, which reduces water and leaf based diseases, but increases the potential for blight and other humidity based plant diseases.

Rainwater doesn't reach the crops, however, said Inglis, which nearly eliminates the risk of unwanted pesticides. The irrigation systems implemented in the high tunnels allots gardeners more control over what chemicals go into their fruits, vegetables and legumes, she said.

Jahns, one of 13 to receive the grant this fiscal year, said that this will be the first summer he can grow beans and corn in his home garden.

"It's not a banner crop," he said. "They suffered a bit waiting for it to be built."

Tony Cella can be reached at

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